October 16, 2006

Cornell Co-Sponsors Earth Science Week

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Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Andrew, tsunamis, tropical storms, global warming; these terms have become increasingly common as we see more and more climate changes that often have destructive affects on our lives. Yet many of us still fail to understand how such natural changes occur.

Earth Science Week, which took place last week, addressed this dearth of knowledge in the population. Created in 1998 by the American Geological Institute, Earth Science Week is “an information session on the coordination of earth science fields and their importance to society,” according to Mark Wysocki, director of undergraduate studies for earth and atmospheric studies. This year’s theme was “Be a Citizen Scientist,” and reinforced the importance of having a scientifically literate community.

Cornell’s EAS department worked in conjunction with the Museum of the Earth, part of the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI), to spread the word to the community.

The Museum of the Earth kicked off the week last Saturday with Teacher Resource Day, which gave about 60 teachers the opportunity to receive the museum’s surplus rocks and shells for use in the classroom.

According to Warren Allmon, director of the Museum of the Earth, the events conducted at the museum throughout the week drew strong crowds.

“PRI wanted to reach the non-campus community — teachers and school students of all ages. Both of these audiences tend to be unaware of earth sciences in general,” said Allmon.

Because there are few strong earth science programs at public schools and those that do exist tend to be poorly funded, it is especially important to inform these groups.

“Unfortunately, at public schools earth science is pretty poorly taught,” said Allmon. “It is usually the science you take if you’re not good enough to take the others.”

For Allmon, Earth Science Week was also about widening the perspectives of the general community.

“If people knew about the science behind climate change, the science of soil erosion, if people understand how the earth affects living organisms, they might read the newspaper differently each day,” he said.

For instance, Allmon described how one event held at the museum showed how scientists used techniques for sensing earthquakes to detect the recent North Korea nuclear test.

Events held at Cornell, according to Wysocki, were meant to “demonstrate the various components of Earth Science as a career and how they apply to real life types and problem solving.”

Such events included a two-day Institute for the Study of the Continents (INSTOC) workshop entitled “Subduction, Orogeny and the Surface of the Earth,” a weather balloon launch from the roof of Bradfield Hall, and a demonstration of subsurface imaging on the Arts Quad.

Unfortunately, the timing of Earth Science Week made it difficult to attract students to the various lectures and demonstrations, as many students were off-campus when the events took place, due to Fall Break.

Another issue was Ithaca’s infamously unpredictable weather. It rained several times last week, including the morning of the weather balloon launch. The threat of storms may have dissuaded interested students from coming.

Next year, “we need to look carefully at the timing,” said Larry Brown, earth and atmospheric sciences and director of INSTOC. “We need to do a better job of getting the word out ahead of time.”

Still, Brown was pleased with the “extremely successful” INSTOC workshop, which “brought in a range of experts from all over the world.” Some of the scientific visitors included Cornell alumni who are now involved in their own research. The symposium was a celebration of the work of Brian Isacks, geological sciences.

However, Wysocki saw that the lack of interest in Earth Science Week was indicative of earth science’s problems in general. Because many of the careers that earth science offers are not as lucrative as other fields, the students that choose to pursue programs in the EAS department must be motivated by the genuine desire to solve
problems pertaining to climate change and the state of the earth.

These problems become especially pertinent when considering the recent natural disasters and the ubiquitous issue of global warming.

“The general public’s response [to these natural disasters] was, “‘Why don’t you have these problems solved?’” said Wysocki, “But we don’t have enough people. We need help…Look at Katrina, look at the cleanup from Hurricane Andrew. They just don’t go away in a few weeks.”